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‘Laughing at the Disabled’ goes to court — again

The Australian reports that Michael Noonan, a Phd student at QUT, is now suing two academics over comments they made in the Oz about his thesis. It’s the latest development in a long-running saga that throws up a bunch of questions about disability, humour and the academy.

Noonan’s thesis, you see, was entitled ‘Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains’. Gary MacLennan and John Hookham are well-known leftist activists and academics. They saw  footage from the work in progress and were outraged at what they perceived at its cruelty and insensitivity. In an interview with the 7.30 Report, they explained:

GARY MCLENNAN, SENOR LECTURER, QUT: He asked the intellectually impaired man and autistic man what would they do if a girl fancied them both. The young autistic man, his face begins to twitch. It twitches for quite a long time. Beside me, academics were laughing at them.

JOHN HOOKHAM: It’s a question of a full understanding and full comprehension of the situation in which they are in and clearly in this particular situation they did not have full comprehension of all the details at all.

GARY MCLENNAN: Hold the disabled in your heart. Do not… never be seduced into mocking or ridiculing them.

They wrote the article for the Oz expressing their disgust. QUT responded with disciplinary action against McLennan and Hookham, who were both suspended for six months without pay. That led to campus protests before the two men went to the Federal Court, where they were cleared of misconduct, and received an substantial settlement.

Expressed like that it seems a pretty open-and-shut case, with two activists taking a stand against a hideously exploitative project and getting dragged through the courts for their pain. But here’s where it gets more complicated. Why, you might wonder, would the Australian give space in its op-ed pages to two prominent leftists? Well, because as well as standing up for the disabled, they were using the case to attack that favourite punching bag of the Right, a crazy postmodern relativism in which ‘Big Brother’ gets elevated to the level of Shakespeare. For instance, they explained:

Cultural studies is in the grip of a powerful movement that we call the radical philistine push. It is this same movement that has seen the collapse of English studies and the consequent production of graduates who have only the scantiest acquaintance with our literary heritage.

McLennan and Hookham presumably intended the piece to attack postmodernism from the Left; in fact, it comes across as a reinforcement of the Oz’s standard line about amoral Leftists getting a foothold on campus, and then destroying the canon and preaching relativism.

Further, Noonan was not some crass fratboy simply intent on provocation. He had worked with the disabled men on an earlier project, Unlikely Travellers. The relevant transcript from the 7.30 report reads like this:

DARREN: I forget all about the camera and I do my own thing. Yeah, really good, and I love it. Everything hit me. I’m pumped!

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: The series was the brainchild of filmmaker and Queensland University of Technology PhD student, Michael Noonan.

MICHAEL NOONAN, FILM MAKER: They are funny guys and they know they’re funny. They create their own comedy. They’re aware of what they were doing.

GENEVIEVE HUSSEY: He was so impressed with Darren and James’s comic potential he decided to use them in a second project, a comedy series.

DARREN: Really excellent and I didn’t believe at first. I thought, “Oh, wow”.

DEBBIE, JAMES’ MOTHER: The whole thing was just refreshing for us. It was just… People taking an interest in our son and wanting to do something with them, something he was very willing to do.

He had also screened the footage from his PhD to the two men who featured in his film and to their families, to an external psychologist, and to representatives from disability group Access Arts. He had the backing of Spectrum, a not-for-profit group that helps disabled people in mainstream society. Its chief executive explained to the media that Noonan’s work would change the way people viewed those with disabilities: “Michael is a wonderful human being; he is going to break down so many barriers.”

Furthermore, the footage that provoked MacLennan and Hookham to write their Oz piece was unedited, and presented at a seminar for work in progress. Noonan later wrote:

Their outburst at my confirmation was unsettling and abusive, but I sought to address their concerns. They were the supervisors of my masters degree, awarded in 2003; I respected their wisdom and experience, and I was keen to understand and discuss their overwhelmingly negative reaction to my material.

On the night following my confirmation seminar, I emailed Hookham and MacLennan to discuss their concerns: “I’d really appreciate talking more to you both about your thoughts about my PhD project.” I was met with condescension and rejection. MacLennan’s email finished with the line: “When you start trying to offend the rich and the powerful I might be interested in a conversation.”

MacLennan then made a formal complaint against my project and I was asked to meet assistant dean, research, Brad Haseman, and portfolio director Paul Makeham to discuss it. At this meeting I settled on a revised title for my thesis and welcomed the formation of a disability reference group that would guide and oversee the project. This group is in place to monitor and support my work.

Three days later I received a call from a reporter from The Australian: Hookham and MacLennan’s opinion piece attacking my work would appear in the next edition of the HES. Clearly Hookham and MacLennan had no interest in discussing or resolving this matter with me or the university; they rushed to print in a matter of days.

Clearly there’s a lot to unpick. Peter Black has a good source of links about the case here.

So what to make of it all? I genuinely don’t know, especially since there’s now so much he-said, she-said about the actual facts. But here’s two thoughts.

Firstly, settling these kinds of controversies through disciplinary action or the courts sets a terrible precedent. It’s obviously positive that the suspension of MacLennan and Hookham was overturned — otherwise any academic taking a public stance would fear for his or her job. Defamation suits, by their nature, clamp down on free speech. Dragging Maclennan and Hookham back to court is not going to settle the questions in dispute.

That being said, Noonan does seem to have been pretty shabbily treated. Even if his project was misguided, he doesn’t seem to have been malicious. PhD seminars exist to discuss whether ideas are working or not, and students have a right to experiment without finding themselves enlisted in the Oz’s war against cultural studies. Certainly, it’s hard to see that, given the way the story has panned out, other young filmmakers will be moved to take on such a ticklish project as representing the disabled on film.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. I would have thought that before commencing a PhD with a title of ‘Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains’ you'd have to go through the University ethics criteria regarding interviewing people etc. before it was accepted. QUT should have accepted responisbility if the procedures were 'fuzzy' allowing it to go through.
    On the last point about filming the disabled, it might go down to whether it's informed consent. I have a son who is Asperger's and is totally hilarious, he knows he's quirky, disorganized and he doesn't see himself as disabled – nor is he. I taunt him about the fact his room looks like Bernard Black's shop in Black Books – he thinks it's great. I also have a younger daughter who is passive Autistic and has an intellectual disability. She would never understand the idea of self-mockery and thus her dignity would be very much assailed by those knowing better. So what is endearing banter with my son, would be cruelty to her.
    The question may not be about right and left politics but about what or why something is or is not ethical – that's philosophy.

  2. I'm pretty sure it did get ethics clearance. I think Noonan makes that point in his article.
    Totally agree about informed consent — though the fact that the parents were so enthusiastic suggests that he may well have had that.

  3. News Ltd use people to push barrows. Noonan is ex-News Ltd. News Ltd gave the whole thing plenty of oxygen. They specialise in "owning" the debate on any issue and always use it to run whatever agenda they have, as Jeff hints in this piece (they presumably wanted X but it came across as Y).

    From the Court documents it can be seen that News Ltd is not named as a Defendant. Normally the newspaper would be a Defendant because it has "published" the thing complained of.

    As we have seen yet again in the last week, if News Ltd are involved things are seldom as they seem, and yet everyone is terrified of them. Why? How is that healthy for democracy?

    They are laughing at all of us.

  4. O.T. I know, but worth posting here nonetheless:
    "If you're on Twitter, set your location to Tehran and your time-zone to GMT +3.30. Security forces are hunting for bloggers using location/timezone searches. The more people at this location, the more of a logjam it creates for forces trying to shut down Iranians' access to the internet. Cut, paste & pass it on."

  5. ohelen (above) is spot on. Last year I went to see 'Deadly Funny' (the final of the annual nationwide indigenous comedy search) at the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It is one of the only times in my life I remember laughing till I cried (not to mention the wee in my pants)…and it really struck me that a lot of the material would be really 'wrong' in any other context (one entrant, who I think came third, simply listed suggestions for indigenous Australian tv shows and explained the concepts behind them: Home & Away became Mission Home & Stolen Away, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? became a games show called Who Wants Their Land Back ?etc…) But there was strong ownership of that material…which I guess is what 'ohelen' is saying…

  6. Totally agree with that. I could imagine heaps of circumstances where a film called 'Laughing at the Disabled' was totally exploitative. But in a different context it might possibly be empowering. That's why the treatment of Noonan leaves me feeling distinctly uneasy.

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